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The Sage of Black Rock

May 2024
14min read

CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite underwent a dramatic change of heart during the Vietnam War—and in doing so, changed the face of broadcast journalism

On February 6, 1965, Vietcong guerrillas attacked the U.S. base at Pleiku, killing eight American soldiers and wounding 126. The Johnson administration quickly retaliated, commencing another vicious cycle of lightning reprisals and military escalations. Suddenly U.S. “advisers” in Vietnam were recognized as combat troops; 23,000 U.S. personnel grew to 181,000 by the year’s end. On March 8 CBS Reports broadcast an hour-long debate between pro-war Sen. Gale McGee (D-WY) and antiwar Sen. George McGovern (D-SD). Hosted by Charles Collingwood, “Vietnam: Hawks and the Doves” became a symbolic showdown as many Americans chose sides.

Walter Cronkite didn’t—or couldn’t—choose. Even though the 48-year-old CBS anchor was “disturbed” by the lack of candor in the current administration, he was still pro-war. He was anxious for the CBS Evening News to start covering Vietnam in earnest—and to start detangling the increasingly complex conflict. The Vietnam conflict began with widespread public support but became increasingly controversial as the war sucked up ever larger numbers of troops and matériel. For U.S. soldiers it meant jungle combat as brutal as any in the history of warfare. For antiwar protestors, particularly on college campuses, it reeked of imperialism and warmongering. For most American conservatives and many of moderate political beliefs, it represented a crucial battlefield in the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union and China. For African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and poor whites, it stood for class hypocrisy as their children were sent to Southeast Asia while many rich youth received special deferments or cushy stateside assignments in the National Guard. For CBS News it meant catching up with NBC News, which aired Vietnam Weekly Review, a series dedicated to Johnson’s war.

Over the next three years, as Cronkite sorted through the conflicting perspectives and positions swirling around the war, he would undergo a personal transformation that would deeply color Americans’ understanding of Vietnam. In those trying times, with the help of a cadre of talented CBS News producers, cameramen, and correspondents, he indelibly shaped the archetype of the objective television news anchor. Yet at a critical moment in the war, he stepped out of his news anchor role and spoke his mind to the American people. That choice would not only help shape public opinion but lead in part to the rampant editorializing in television news today.

The War Heats Up

Almost a month after the Vietcong attack at Pleiku, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy recommended a three-stage escalation of the bombing in North Vietnam. That July Cronkite traveled to South Vietnam for the first time. By then Gen. William Westmoreland had launched the first serious offensive operation by U.S. ground forces into territory just northwest of Saigon. Cronkite wanted to see the on-the-ground effect.

The U.S. military and the CIA rolled out the red carpet for the CBS newsman in Da Nang. They let him shoot assault rifles, fly planes, detonate mines, and throw grenades. Along with producer Ron Bonn and cameraman Walter Dombrow, he spent a couple of weeks touring the countryside, where he was treated to a velvet-trimmed version of the war, complete with private briefings, Jeep trips, helicopter rides, and more than a few gourmet French meals. Privately he met with a brigadier general with the 173rd Airborne Brigade who thought the Vietcong were “cowards.” On July 18 Cronkite even obtained an exclusive interview with Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky of South Vietnam, excerpts of which appeared on Face the Nation.

Toward the end of Cronkite’s tour, CBS News correspondent Morley Safer and a Special Forces officer buttonholed the anchorman and gave him a “grunt’s eye view of the world” that was “completely different from what the generals had told him.” In his memoir Flashbacks, Safer wrote that he set up at least a few meetings for Cronkite to learn the unvarnished truth about America’s failures in Vietnam, to counter all the “lies and bogus optimism” that were being pitchforked his way.

To Cronkite, smart reporters such as Safer, whom he admired, needed to help the American military win the war, as he had done during World War II. “The truths I told him didn’t come as a complete shock,” Safer recalled. “But it was just difficult for him not to be supportive of the American troops in the field.” During World War II Cronkite had worked for the United Press and regularly participated in Eighth Air Force bombing sorties. He and the other reporters wrote copy that sought to boost civilian morale and aid the Allies’ efforts. It was difficult for Cronkite to take a different approach to war reporting during the early years of the Vietnam conflict.

The 1965 trip didn’t change Cronkite’s opinion of the war, although Safer’s sobering analysis continued to echo in his mind. He sensed that the Pentagon was playing a “numbers game” with the public, inflating statistics so that it appeared that American forces were winning battles decisively. Cronkite also believed that President Johnson was downplaying the U.S. government’s commitment to South Vietnam’s nation-building effort. He had seen the huge U.S. construction projects around Da Nang, and such infrastructure suggested long-term commitment. “I returned from that first trip to Vietnam,” Cronkite recalled, “with the feeling that the evidence in the field seemed to support the contention of the high command and the administration in Washington that we were making progress.” Cronkite praised Johnson’s “courageous decision that communism’s advance must be stopped in Asia and that guerrilla war as a means to a political end must be finally discouraged.”

Cronkite wasn’t alone. Up until late 1967, trust in government remained high. Many Americans disdained the methods and appearance of the antiwar contingent. They also rejected the New Left’s claim that Johnson was dead wrong about Vietnam. Cronkite hovered around that question in 1965–66. Producer Les Midgley produced insightful CBS Special Reports programs on Vietnam that tried to piece together the disparate perspectives from the Pentagon that the United States was “winning” and from the peaceniks that the military was “losing”—an impossible feat. CBS correspondents including Safer, Jack Laurence, Peter Kalischer, and Charles Collingwood brilliantly reported on the chaotic situation.

CBS News was obligated to stay neutral, and Cronkite, before the Tet offensive in 1968, wasn’t ready to pass judgment in any case. But he was committed to the overall CBS effort to cover the heavy buildup in Vietnam. He also wanted to outpace the strong rival anchor team of NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.

Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley, Harry Reasoner, Howard K. Smith, and a few others were moving to the television forefront as news anchors-cum-celebrities. Even while producers, correspondents, and writers worked hard to gather and communicate the news, polls revealed that television viewers mainly judged network news by whether they liked, understood, and respected the anchors. In television journalism, only Cronkite could lure viewers to fixate on his every word. If he made a little smile or half-raised an eyebrow, viewers noticed. “It’s not as though Walter were a movie star,” Betsy Cronkite explained of her husband’s appeal. “People watch him when they are in pajamas in their bedrooms. They feel they know him.”

Impressed with his reporting during World War II, Edward R. Murrow had recruited Cronkite for CBS in 1950 to cover the Korean War for WTOP-TV in Washington, D.C. By 1962, after building a solid reputation for hosting the network’s coverage of political conventions and general elections, he became the anchor of the CBS Evening News. When CBS increased the show’s time from 15 to 30 minutes in September 1963, he became the first anchor of a half-hour nightly news program. He built a reputation as a trusted figure with his nightly presence and solid coverage of politics and the space program.

Cronkite was as adamant as anyone that anchors should be journalists first and foremost, trained in investigating, reporting, editing, and writing long before ever uttering a word into a microphone. Being a star didn’t bother him. He had come of age in the 1920s and 1930s, when intrepid reporters such as Lowell Thomas projected a rough-and-ready glamour that made them idols akin to Arctic explorers or aviation pioneers. Cronkite understood the charisma attached to his profession, though television magnified it to levels that—as Brinkley once noted—were absurd. Celebrity TV anchormen also encouraged more people to watch the news, one of Cronkite’s longstanding goals, even if his motivations were as much selfish as civic-minded. More than any other single person, Cronkite defined how a television news anchor should look, talk, and report.

At the end of 1967, the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite passed the Huntley-Brinkley Report in the ratings. The excellence of CBS’s Vietnam correspondent corps proved a major factor in the broadcasts’ success.

The network’s unceasing promotion of Cronkite as the best anchor helped too. But the centerpiece of the new ranking was the audience’s increasing belief that Cronkite, once damned with faint praise for his “competence,” was the personification of media integrity.

By Christmas 1967 it had become clear that the Vietnam War would dominate the 1968 election. President Johnson, with his overworked Texas mannerisms, was so roundly distrusted regarding Vietnam policy that his own Democratic party was showing signs of cracking.

Tet Offensive

Cronkite was sitting in his cluttered CBS News office at the Broadcast Center on West 57th Street on January 31, 1968, when he heard a clattering over the wire-service machines just down the hall. He walked down the corridor and read an Associated Press (AP) dispatch from South Vietnam about a surprise attack on Saigon and other sites, known later as the Tet offensive. The wire made Cronkite uneasy because Saigon was supposed to be a U.S. stronghold. A squad of Vietcong commandos had besieged the U.S. embassy in Saigon, killing a U.S. Army guard; others had attacked General Westmoreland’s headquarters along with South Vietnamese general staff offices. Dozens of other cities and hamlets were also targeted.

Cronkite strode into producer Sandy Socolow’s office, waved the dispatch in the faces of several newsmen, and asked, “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning the war!”

As usual, Cronkite was in step with millions of Americans, who were similarly venting frustration over the stalemate in Vietnam. By late 1967 many reporters believed that the Johnson administration had lied to them about imminent victory in Vietnam. The AP report proved that the war would not end soon. Within days of Tet, President Johnson’s approval ratings plummeted. Despite a half million U.S. troops in South Vietnam, the Vietcong remained an eminently viable force.

At the CBS Evening News the grim specter of the Tet dominated coverage for days. According to the Nielsen ratings, the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report were seen in more than 100 million homes during the initial week of Tet. “Vietnam was America’s first television war,” Washington Post journalist Don Oberdorfer wrote, “and the Tet Offensive was America’s first television superbattle.”

Cronkite went to see CBS News President Richard S. Salant about reporting on Tet from Saigon. Cronkite, who epitomized the political center, had decided even before he pitched Salant that he wanted to “try and present an assessment of the situation as one who had not previously taken a public position on the war.” No longer would he be impartial. The time had come to weigh in. From a TV ratings perspective, it was a calculated risk; he might end up driving the hawks away from the CBS Evening News for good.

Each time Cronkite mentioned the Pentagon’s exaggerations, Salant cringed. He had never before seen Cronkite so animated. His initial response was that he was overreacting to Tet. “But if you are going to go,” Salant said, “I think you ought to do a documentary about going, about why you went, and maybe you are going to have to say something about where the war ought to go at that point.”

Under Salant, CBS News enforced an ironclad rule that its journalists never editorialized. If he detected a single verb or adjective that lurched toward opinion on the CBS Evening News, the reporter would be immediately reprimanded. The strength of CBS’s brand rested on its perceived impartiality. Now, to Cronkite’s utter astonishment, Salant was willing to break the network’s golden rule.

“You have established a reputation, and thanks to you and through us we at CBS have established a reputation for honesty and factual reporting and being in the middle of the road,” Salant told Cronkite. “So if we’ve got that reputation, maybe it would be helpful, if people trust us that much, trust you that much, for you to say what you think. Tell them what it looks like, from you being on the ground, what is your opinion.” Salant and Cronkite settled on doing a primetime CBS News Special Report that would be called “Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?”

Along with producers Ernie Leiser and Jeff Gralnick, Cronkite reached the troubled city of Saigon on February 11, 1968. Bombs were bursting, whooshing, and screaming around the city’s outskirts. Long-range artillery fire sounded in the distance. The faces of the Vietnamese street children, frightened by self-propelled rockets and recoilless rifles and mortars, were disfigured with terror. Cronkite had seen the same hollowed-eye look in displaced persons at the end of the Second World War in Belgium and the Netherlands. Saigon was a combat zone.

After only a few hours on the ground, Cronkite hustled up an interview with General Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces. It didn’t go well. The general was brash and dismissive. To Cronkite’s amazement, Westmoreland claimed that Tet was an American victory. While the North Vietnamese had failed in their military objectives, the strength of the enemy force, as well as its resolve, was far greater than the general and his staff were willing to concede. Twelve days into the offensive, U.S. troops were indeed winning back territory, but nearly 1,000 Americans had died. Westmoreland mildly scolded Cronkite: the Vietcong had been prevented from sacking Saigon, and therefore it was clear as day that the U.S. Army was winning the war. With one caveat: 200,000 more troops were needed.

Westmoreland told Cronkite, in no uncertain terms, that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and three U.S. Marine Corps battalions had defeated more than 10,000 entrenched People’s Army of Vietnam and Vietcong at Hue. As Cronkite and company headed to Hue up Highway 1 (the main north–south road of Vietnam, running the length of the country from the Chinese border to the Mekong Delta), they realized that Westmoreland had lied brazenly. The Marines were still trying to take the city. Explosions sounded even in the center of town. “The battle was still on in Hue when I got up there,” Cronkite recalled.

Reporters working for the AP, the New York Times, and Reuters welcomed the renowned anchor. Like the younger correspondents, he slept on the bare floor of a Vietnamese doctor’s house that had become a pressroom, and he walked the bombed-out streets. He ate C-rations and used the overflowing latrines. Nobody thought he acted like a bigwig. Like a prosecuting attorney gathering facts, he interviewed everyone from orphaned children to traumatized U.S. soldiers. He went on a Marine patrol to survey the perimeter roads around Hue. Besides interviewing Vietnamese citizens, Cronkite managed face time with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, opposition leader Nguyen Xuan Oanh, and U.S. Lt. Gen. Robert E. Cushman Jr.

That February, the full meaning of Tet began to come into focus for Cronkite. The South Vietnamese government had lost its credibility and was therefore condemned to negotiate a peace accord as quickly as it could. Cronkite now understood the extent to which his own network had bought into Westmoreland’s military propaganda between 1965 and 1968. Along with NBC and ABC, CBS had erroneously reported Hue as a U.S. victory. (In the end, Hue would indeed prove a U.S. victory, but only after a protracted battle that lasted into March.)

Cronkite left Hue on a transport chopper with a dozen dead Marines in rubber body bags. Hadn’t Westmoreland told him that U.S. forces had pacified Hue? The general’s deception wasn’t abstract now to Cronkite; it hung palpably inside the helicopter jammed with bodies. On the flight Cronkite grieved not only for the American dead but for the thousands of American veterans who had gotten their arms and legs blown off. And then there were the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Thais killed in what he now believed was an impossible and unnecessary war.

Gralnick, Cronkite’s close associate for many years, couldn’t predict how his boss was going to play the CBS Special Report once they got back to New York. They had spent unforgettable times together in Hue, Khe Sanh, and Saigon, seen a lot of collateral damage, and met scores of soldiers and reporters. But Cronkite continued to be circumspect. “He held his cards close,” Gralnick recalled.

Back in New York, working closely with Salant, Socolow, Gralnick, and Leiser, Cronkite shaped his Vietnam material, extracted from his notebooks. “It was Walter’s writing,” Gralnick explained. “We just helped frame the argument, keep the language harnessed. It was Walter who insisted on using ‘stalemate’ to describe Vietnam.” The primary objective was to make sure viewers didn’t think Cronkite had rushed to judgment.

Wearing a dark suit with matching tie, Cronkite took to the airwaves on February 27, 1968, at 10 p.m. In the half-hour “Report from Vietnam,” he calmly and objectively presented the facts, providing a penetrating illustrated briefing that covered everything from U.S. air raids to villages in ruin. Millions of Americans tuned in.

After the last commercial break, Cronkite turned to look straight into the camera from behind his New York desk, indicating his desire to speak “personally” to the viewers in a speculative and subjective fashion. In his closing words, delivered in strong, reasoned tones, he told the American people what he now firmly believed: from a U.S. military perspective, the Southeast Asian war was unwinnable. (See the sidebar on p. 70 for the full address.)

Cronkite’s editorial wasn’t radical: in many ways, calling the war a “stalemate” was a middling position in 1968. But in the highly polarized national dialogue on Vietnam, it placed Cronkite squarely as a dove. He had lent his august name to the antiwar movement and thereby put it into mainstream America.

His words resonated deeply with millions of viewers. His opinion was widely quoted in the press, opening the door for NBC’s Frank McGee to take a similar stand in a documentary on Vietnam that aired two weeks later. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal’s editorial page said, “The whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.”

Perhaps the most memorable evidence of the report’s impact was the apparent reaction from President Johnson, who purportedly said after the show, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” (A scholarly debate has emerged recently over whether Johnson ever really uttered those words—he probably didn’t.) Nobody in the Johnson family believed that the Cronkite commentary was startling to the president—he had been grappling with the post-Tet conditions himself for weeks. But as a political pro, Johnson must have known that the Cronkite broadcast—while stating the obvious—had done him major political damage. The president’s real concern was that Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy had both signaled their determination to challenge him for the Democratic nomination that year. The passions over the war threatened to disrupt national life.

Reflecting on Cronkite’s dissent, Newsweek noted that it was as if Lincoln himself had ambled down from his white marble Memorial seat and joined an anti–Vietnam War rally. With his honest commentary, Cronkite had vaulted into the annals of American journalism history.

Cronkite’s “Report from Vietnam” represented a turning point. “It was the first time in American history,” David Halberstam wrote, “that a war had been declared over by a commentator.” The war, however, was far from over in fact. It still had years of anguish, death, and tragedy in store.

Robert Kennedy Challenges Johnson

A little over two weeks after Cronkite’s broadcast, Robert F. Kennedy formally announced his candidacy for president. All hell broke loose in the Democratic primary field. Less than two weeks later, on March 31, President Johnson scheduled a televised message about limiting U.S. involvement in Vietnam by declaring a partial halt in bombing missions. The Oval Office was set up with cameras for the speech. As Johnson entered, he muttered to a CBS technician, “Cronkite isn’t going to like this.” As LBJ stared at the White House television camera, he looked uneasily at the lens for a second or two and then began speaking about Vietnam in his distinctive Texas Hill Country twang. But, then, quite unexpectedly, he announced, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

That Sunday LBJ’s face seemed to disintegrate on millions of home screens as if melting from within. It was a shocking national announcement. A pressing question that immediately made the rounds was whether the “Report from Vietnam” had contributed to Johnson’s decision. The president later insisted in an interview with Cronkite that he could have won a second full term in 1968, but by that March he was a tired man, facing medical problems and a crisis of confidence across the country. Extracting America from the Vietnam quagmire would be a formidable job. His energies were needed at the White House, not gallivanting around to Democratic fund-raisers. So, with the encouragement of his devoted wife, Lady Bird, the president abruptly bowed out of the 1968 presidential contest. “We had not expected,” Cronkite wrote, “that the president himself would react like he did. No one has claimed, and I certainly don’t believe, that our broadcast changed his mind about anything. I do believe it may have been the back-breaking piece of straw that was heaped on the heavy load he was already carrying.”

That March, however, Cronkite was personally saddened—to a degree—by Johnson’s unexpected withdrawal. When not anchoring the CBS Evening News, Cronkite had given speeches promoting Johnson’s Great Society domestic policies, including Medicaid–Medicare, wilderness preservation, civil rights, and a hopper full of antipoverty measures. He actually thought LBJ was a good president; it was only on the Vietnam War that the record soured. “Daddy and Walter stayed close,” Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of the president, maintained. “They never let the war get between them.”

Cronkite was stunned at how ferocious the antiwar protests now became all over the world. He knew that CBS News was partly responsible. Many of the public demonstrations were being held to attract TV cameras. It was one of the lessons of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent movement: protests brought cameras, which created footage that played on the network news shows. Like all the networks, CBS News considered street demonstrations to be excellent television. The lesson Cronkite learned anew from the connection between “Report from Vietnam” and LBJ’s resignation was that television didn’t just report events; it also helped shape them.

Because of Cronkite’s honesty, the CBS Evening News took on a new edge in its war reporting. Ratings went up. Ironically, this development marked the end of television network news anchormen’s never taking policy positions. Opinion sold. Worries about editorializing became a quaint public policy notion no longer sacrosanct. If Cronkite regretted anything about his Tet special, it was that the line between commentary and the news became forever blurred. Beginning in 1968, everybody—politicians, movie stars, disc jockeys, musicians, novelists, corporate CEOs—felt compelled to offer their opinions on civil rights, urban poverty, abortion, and, above all, Vietnam.

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